Some 10 years ago now, I was a fairly content churchgoer – happy with my church, my church-going friends and the life direction I was pursuing. I had a few non-Christian friends and that was OK because having watched a parade of evangelists for most of my Christian life, I thought that since I wasn’t like them, I couldn’t be gifted in evangelism. So my responsibility towards making disciples, towards the great commission, would be fulfilled within the hallowed walls of my church.
And then God showed me how wrong I was.
It began with a little contract job as an employment advisor. There I was, meeting up with a wide variety of young people, some of which had burdening histories of brokenness and isolation. I was just trying to do my job, but God kept butting in with things I should say to them. So eventually I did, and light poured into these stories. My viewpoint of how to engage with the world was rocked and changed.
First of all, I wasn’t telling them about Jesus directly – and I can’t tell you how conflicted this made me feel at the time. So what was I saying to them? I guess I was sharing with them all the things I took for granted as normal conversation with my church-going mates.
I listened to their broken stories – really listened – and made sure that they knew they were heard and that I cared about what they were saying. For some, just this act broke the isolation that had them confined in dysfunctional living patterns. Others I encouraged to dream again and helped plot out possible life-giving patterns. I spoke a lot about the power of rest – Sabbath, letting go – forgiveness, and identity – being made in the image of God. I basically just tried to bless people.
I have to confess that, at the time, I really struggled a lot with this. Not because of the things that I was saying, but because of what I wasn’t saying. Because I was working under terms that meant mentioning Jesus would cost me my job. I used to wonder if I wasn’t selling out in some way – not being bold enough. But then again, I was speaking to people of other faiths as well and they were listening and really hearing what I had to say and applying it to their lives.
This really got me thinking again about discipleship, and how for the most part I expected that a discipleship journey could only take place after the person had chosen to become a follower of Christ. I began to discuss this with my friends and found that I was the late arrival to a party of people who shared the gospel in piecemeal with people who were not yet followers of Christ.
I listened to some teaching on this, and then on reading the gospels I saw that Jesus was sharing life-giving patterns before people had committed themselves to following him. He offered discipleship before they had converted. And I can do the same. For example, I use the direction laid out in Matthew 18 in how I address conflict. In addition, I then invite my workmates to do the same, to address their conflicts with me but also with others.
It seems to me that this wisdom that we so casually share on Sundays should not be hoarded within our hallowed walls, but instead shared round, humbly, in digestible pieces, and given freely.
Today, I’m firmly committed to the practice of trying to disciple people who aren’t followers of Jesus. It ought to begin with love, but really begins with listening and hearing what the person has to say, and also listening to what God has to say. Sometimes God isn’t saying anything, and so I try not to either. Other times, I feel like I’m fumbling in the dark and praying that I don’t say or do something stupid – but that’s alright because I’m trying to follow Jesus too and I haven’t gotten it sussed.
Finally, if you can’t speak out, act. Act kindly, act mercifully and invite others to do the same towards others. Invite them to join your acts, or join in with theirs when it’s kind and life-giving. Build community where you are, bring in light, love and laughter and bring in truth. So far for me, this is how I’m working out Jesus’ call “to go into all the world” – the great commission.